thirty-five things tagged “today i learned”

Sears Homes

Sears, the department store, sold DIY homes via catalog for 32 years between 1908 and 1940 through a program called Sears Modern Homes. They offered 447 different housing styles which you can see here.

The designs were not ‘remarkable’ in any way: Sears themselves admit that they were “not an innovative home designer”. These were just some popular styles at the times they were offered.

However, as a customer, you would have enjoyed a lot of agency in either customizing a home you picked as a starting point from the catalog, or submitting your own custom, crazy blueprint to Sears. Prices ranged from $600 - $6,000 ($18,620 - $186,200 in today’s money). You could get a 5-15 year loan at 6-7% interest.

Your “assembly required” home would have been dispatched to you via railroad boxcar. Your delivery would’ve had around 30,000 (or more) parts of all sorts: wiring, plumbing, bricks, mortar, lumber, staircases, nails, paint, varnish, and so on. To raise this barn, you would’ve either enlisted your family and friends’ help or contracted out the work to a local handyperson.

The most expensive home was an Honor Bilt and looked like this:

Sears estimate that they sold between 70,000 to 75,000 homes over thirty-two years. It is hard to estimate the number of these homes that are still standing for various reasons. For one, Sears’ own records of which homes were sold to whom were inexplicably destroyed during an enthusiastic “corporate house cleaning”. For another, Sears allowed homebuyers a generous amount of customization. Finally, the passage of time that naturally changes a home complicates its identification and authentication.

I was interested in what one of these dwellings looked like on the inside and found this media of a design called the Martha Washington. One was listed in February 2016 in DC for a million dollars.



They look like priceless brooches and are tremendously important to our planet.

A photo of diatoms through a microscope

Emphases mine:

Living diatoms make up a significant portion of the Earth’s biomass: they generate about 20 to 50 percent of the oxygen produced on the planet each year, take in over 6.7 billion metric tons of silicon each year from the waters in which they live, and constitute nearly half of the organic material found in the oceans. The shells of dead diatoms can reach as much as a half-mile (800 m) deep on the ocean floor, and the entire Amazon basin is fertilized annually by 27 million tons of diatom shell dust transported by transatlantic winds from the African Sahara, much of it from the Bodélé Depression, which was once made up of a system of fresh-water lakes.


The Valeriepieris Circle

This is from a while ago but I didn’t get the memo. It’s a little crazy:

A map of the The Valeriepieris Circle

It’s named after Reddit user /u/vaieriepieris, an ESL teacher from Texas, who made it for a map subreddit in 2013.

  • There are more Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Communists inside the circle than outside it.
  • It “pulls all of this off while being mostly water and including the most sparsely populated country on earth (Mongolia).” (Source).
  • It also contains the highest mountain and deepest trench.

Iowa’s Blackout License Plates

I just ordered a set of “blackout” plates from the DMV here. They’re rather cool and look like this:

Iowa blackout plates

I didn’t know that they were actually a solution to a problem. People would take existing, specialized plates for Dordt University and cover them up to look like the blackout plates.

Iowa Dordt University plates

Clever! But led to some unnecessary altercations with law enforcement since doing this was a legal gray area. State Senator Charles Schneider was able to get the mandate for blackout plates included in 2019. Just in that year, the state raised $850,000 through the sale of these plates for the Road Use Tax Fund (simple arithmetic suggests that ~14,000 people ordered them.)

I got all that from Aaron Calvin’s article in The Des Moines Register. Summarized it here since the Register’s website, like most websites these days, is an unreadable and unusable crock of shit.

A Hundred Humans

Allysson Lucca is a Brazilian designer who took this original list (cached) of what the world would look like with a 1,000 people and shrank it to a hundred.

The idea of reducing the world’s population to a community of only 100 people is very useful and important. It makes us easily understand the differences in the world. There are many types of reports that use the Earth’s population reduced to 100 people, especially in the Internet. Ideas like this should be more often shared, especially nowadays when the world seems to be in need of dialogue and understanding among different cultures, in a way that it has never been before.

Transcribed from the graphic:

  • 50 men, 50 women
  • 61 Asians, 14 Africans, 14 People from the Americas, 11 Europeans
  • 33 Christians, 22 Muslims, 14 Hindus, 7 buddhists, 12 People who practice other religions, and 12 people not aligned with a religion
  • Only 7 would have a college degree
  • 51 would live in urban areas
  • 14 people live with some disability
  • 15 would be undernourished
  • 37 of the community’s population still lack access to adequate sanitation
  • The village military expenditure is $1.7 trillion and only $18 billion in humanitarian assistance
  • 20 people own 75% of the village income
  • 30 would be active internet users
  • 48 would love on less than $2 per day and 80 on less than $10 a day

Whence “Gubernatorial”?

I’m put off by the word “gubernatorial” whenever I see it. Seems very silly, saccharine, like something a 5-year old mispronounced in 1953 that just stuck because it was so cute 🙄


“Because, if you go back to where this word came from, in the original Latin, it’s from the verb, gubernare and gubernator, one who governs,” [Lisa McLendon, professor, University of Kansas School of Journalism] says.

Then, “governor, with the ‘v,’ came into English from French in about the 14th century,” she says. "French had taken the Latin and they swapped the ‘b’ for a ‘v.’ "

English speakers went back to the “b” about 400 years later, but just for gubernatorial. And, there’s the split.

Where Does The Term ‘Gubernatorial’ Come From?, NPR

“The Dance Around the May Pole”

I bought this print at a thrift store a decade ago because it looked ‘nice’ and warm and I loved the colors. It’s an innocent celebration at a glance and from a distance, and a total bacchanal when you examine its scenes up close.

The Dance Around the May Pole by Peter Bruegel

I never knew who painted it until now. It’s Pieter Bruegel the Elder (not to be confused with the Younger) who “was the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting, a painter and printmaker from Brabant, known for his landscapes and peasant scenes (so called genre painting); he was a pioneer in making both types of subject the focus in large paintings.” (Source.) I’m glad that’s settled.

Peace Lily are Hard to Maintain

I have a dying peace lily. I’m a bit attached to it and don’t know that I’ll be able to save it. Searching the internet for any hope led me to this post (cached) which made me feel slightly better about my inexperience.

The first mistake is relying upon the plant’s visual cue that needs water: the leaves droop. But, as the post notes, this can happen when they’re both over and under-watered!

[…] This would be a good indicator of when to water, except that by the time things reach the point of laying flat, damage has been done: the roots die back slightly each time this happens, and if it happens often enough, it will eventually fail to come back at all.

[…] it’s difficult to get the watering just right. […] If it’s too wet, there’s a tendency for plants to rot where they sit, except that they do it in such a way that you don’t necessarily realize what’s going on. One day you go to pull off a dead leaf, and a whole rootless plant comes out. This will generally not be salvageable. To make things trickier, the plant (like a lot of other plants) responds to being too wet by – you guessed it – drooping, which would make an inexperienced grower think that it needs more water.

I think I ruined mine by transferring it to a larger pot, thinking I was ‘suffocating’ it in a smaller one.

However, it’s been my experience that, nine times out of ten, a peace lily with black leaf edges is suffering from root suffocation, either because its soil has broken down and compacted, or because part of the soil never gets to dry out. Especially in a very large pot, and especially especially in a plant that’s been overpotted (put in a pot that’s too large for the plant), and especially especially especially in a plant that’s in a very large pot, too big for the plant, with no drainage hole, the top of the soil can dry out while everything after the top three inches is soaking wet.

Contrary to marketing material, they are not easy beginner plants:

In the time I’ve been at Garden Web (since Dec. 2006), I’ve seen more people post about issues with their peace lilies than any other plant, no contest: too many marketers think that the only important thing about a plant is how much light it needs. It’s true that Spathiphyllum doesn’t require a lot of light; that doesn’t make it the best plant for you, any more than knowing Jennifer Anniston’s name makes her your best friend.

So what does one do?

Common sense is important. If your plant is droopy and the soil feels wet, the plant is obviously not drooping because it’s too dry: don’t give it water. If the plant looks fine and the soil feels dry, the plant doesn’t need water just because the soil is dry: wait for the leaves to get a little limp first. Spathiphyllums are nothing if not good communicators.

And don’t worry about humidity. And use progressively larger pots. I think mine is too far gone at this point 😔

The Schmidt Pain Index

This is the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, an eponymous and subjective measurement of the pain caused by bees, wasps, and ants (and other things in the order hymenoptera.) It ranges from 0-4. In Level Zero, you don’t feel any pain whatsoever; the stinger doesn’t even penetrate your skin. The humble and familiar honeybee will deliver a Level 2.

Schmidt describes Level 4, the absolute worst, as follows:

Bullet Ant

“Pure, intense, brilliant pain… like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel”

“That really shuts you down. It really felt like a bullet. It was instantaneous, almost even before it stung me. It was absolutely riveting. There were huge waves and crescendos of burning pain—a tsunami of pain coming out of my finger. The tsunami would crash as they do on the beach, then recede a little bit, then crash again. It wasn’t just two or three of these waves. It continued for around 12 hours. Crash. Recede. Crash. It was absolutely excruciating. There wasn’t much I could do except be aware of it and groan.”

Tarantula Hawk

“Blinding, fierce [and] shockingly electric”

“A running hair dryer has just been dropped into your bubble bath”

“Like you were walking underneath a high-voltage electric line in a wind storm, a wind gust snapped the line, and it fell on your arm. You get 20,000 volts all at once cascading through your body. It’s pure electrifying pain. Instantaneous. Very clean and sharp.”

Warrior Wasp

“Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list?”

Here’s Dr. Schmidt with a giant bug on his face.

Dr Justin O. Schmidt

Some quotes and that image are from this article he penned in Esquire (cached) where he touches upon why the pain profiles are different.


Vox on something I’ve always wondered: Why tennis pros reject balls before a serve (and what happens to the ones they do.)

More fluff ⇒ more drag ⇒ more time for your opponent to react. So they’re looking for a ball with less fluff for their first serve, and a floofier one for their second.

But while it is provably true that floofier balls are slower, and as Serena Williams’ coach points out, the more important (and potent) thing here is the mental effect of the ritual itself and not the actual Physics 🎾

Stop Words

In computing, stop words are words which are filtered out before or after processing of natural language data (text). Though “stop words” usually refers to the most common words in a language, there is no single universal list of stop words used by all natural language processing tools, and indeed not all tools even use such a list. Some tools specifically avoid removing these stop words to support phrase search.

Any group of words can be chosen as the stop words for a given purpose. For some search engines, these are some of the most common, short function words, such as the, is, at, which, and on. In this case, stop words can cause problems when searching for phrases that include them, particularly in names such as “The Who”, “The The”, or “Take That”. Other search engines remove some of the most common words—including lexical words, such as “want”—from a query in order to improve performance.


I was hitting Algolia’s search limits had to remove words I didn’t care about searching like “and”, “only”, “there”, or “I’ve” in an attempt to shrink the size of the posts on this site in the search index. There are quite a few lists on the internet and I ended up using a few of them for significant (> 65% average) size reductions in the search corpora.

The Scunthorpe Problem

The Scunthorpe problem (or the Clbuttic Mistake) is the unintentional blocking of websites, e-mails, forum posts or search results by a spam filter or search engine because their text contains a string of letters that appear to have an obscene or otherwise unacceptable meaning.


Examples would be: shitake mushrooms, Herman I. Libshitz, magna cum laude, Arun Dikshit.


Corpsing is British theatrical slang for unintentionally laughing during a non-humorous performance or when a role in a humorous performance is intended to be played “straight”. In North American TV and film, this is considered a variation of breaking character or simply “breaking”.


Here’s some further examination by Ricky Gervais and crew. Features Sir Ian McKellen and Daniel Radcliffe.

Schrodinger’s Douchebag

One who makes douchebag statements, particularly sexist, racist or otherwise bigoted ones, then decides whether they were “just joking” or dead serious based on whether other people in the group approve or not.

Urban Dictionary

They’re always “just joking.” About pandemic response, about requesting foreign interference in their country’s elections, injecting disinfectants to treat disease, asking for more police brutality, mocking the disabled, treason, dangling pardons like a mob boss, asking foreign governments to investigate political opponents, calling onself “The Chosen One”, calling a former president the founder of a terrorist organization, or condoning violence against journalists. Just look at your face, bro 😆

And then there’s Schrodinger’s Asshole:

A person who decides whether or not they’re full of shit by the reactions of those around them.

Via Mark.


Using a Bloopy Thing to print on all sorts of materials is called “Pad Printing” or tampography. Here’s a Big Bloopy Thing printing a very beautiful pattern onto a bowl (and here’s two of them going at the same time.)

You can use the same technique on all sorts of things: plastic bins, pens, keychains, golf balls, pills. The silicone/bloop conforms to the shape of the object to print on rather easily.

Quality Logo Products has a quick explanation:

Resolution versus Magnification

Was looking for a portable iPhone microscope and came by this one on Amazon. Doubted the “50x-1000x magnification” claim and landed on this video by Oliver Kim (here’s his channel on YouTube) on how to make sense of that feature.

The key idea here is to think of a microscope as a device that resolves hitherto unseen things. It’s simply not just a magnifier of small things our eyes cannot resolve. This is the difference between the 2x optical zoom on your iPhone versus the 10x you can slide it up to.

So I don’t doubt that the product on Amazon can do 50x, which is fine for my needs. I just don’t believe that the upper bound (1000x) can provide anything useful.


Optician Sans is a free optotype 1 based on the Sloan letters2.

  1. I had no idea this was a thing. There’s a lot to learn here about the eye charts I see once a year. The earliest chart appears to go all the way back to 1862 (!) Those little "C"s are called Landolt C. The one most optometrists use these days is called a LogMAR Chart which measures visual acuity as a log function of the smallest visual angle your eyes can resolve. ↩︎

  2. Which you can download here with “noncommercial research” in mind. ↩︎